book review · Uncategorized

Book Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Title: The Sympathizer

Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Genre: Literary, Historical Fiction

Pages: 371

Rating: tealstartealstartealstartealstar

 

 


As a lover of stories, I think it’s always surreal but fascinating to meet an author of a book you like and it was no different with Mr. Nguyen. I got to hear him speak at a Critical Refugees panel a few months ago before I had even read this book, although I had heard of it. He served as a moderator for this panel and I was struck by his reflective, introspective questions. I suppose I was also fascinated because he was a Vietnamese immigrant who is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, usually Vietnamese people pick careers in math and science in my experience.

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Left: Rapper praCH; Middle: Poet Mai Der Vang; Right: Viet Thanh Nguyen

From what I recall, he was very interested in asking the implications of being a refugee. The feeling of not belonging to either ideology. That contradiction is explored in our main character. He is a communist spy, half Viet and half French, who moves to the United States after the fall of Saigon and spends time with the General and his servicemen in order to send back information to his communist commander back in Vietnam.

I really liked reading about post-Vietnam war America and the attitude towards Americans for withdrawing from the war when the South still needed them. It was never more clear to me how much loathing the Americans instilled from the Vietnamese. He talks about Vietnam’s role in world history as cursed and bastardized, passed from Indochina to the French to the US and then to civil war. It parallels our own main character’s role in the book. Both are never really allowed to form their own identity. So the political atmosphere of the book really interested me. What also interested me was theme of being the Sympathizer. Our narrator is constantly torn between two sides, between his fealty between his two friends, between his half heritage, between the North and the South. Even as he is feeding information about the revolution’s side to the communists, he secretly feels sympathy for the Left. Even as he kills revolutionaries so he won’t be discovered, their deaths still haunt him forever. Seeing that dynamic made me see the merits of both sides, but also the failings and as you go on through the book, that juxtaposition can also be found with the bigger themes of the book like the relationship between America and Vietnam.

Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?

His character is a double-edged sword however because he sympathizes with both sides so in the end, I don’t know what his stance actually is, what he actually believes in although I did see more leaning toward the Left as most Viet people living here would lean towards. But I suppose maybe that’s the point.

Last Viet Evacuees by Boat
Last evacuees from Saigon before Fall; Picture from Time

Most of the time is spent in our narrator’s head so there is little room for other characters to develop and shine but they were colorful enough and served their purpose enough so that the book didn’t feel like it was missing something.

The writing was a little too quippy at times but I didn’t mind it. It had splashes of Kurt Vonnegut with somewhat dream-like sequences and hints of 1984 by George Orwell in it. I really like some of his turn of phrases where he turns sentiments you already know and turns it into something quotable.

“To live was to be haunted by the inevitability of one’s own decay, and to be dead was to be haunted by the memory of living.”

In the end, this book is really an ode to the Vietamese. And I think Nguyen captures the very essence, the “Vietnamese-ness” of Vietnamese immigrants which is probably not that helpful in describing this book but it’s true. It’s always in touch with the subtle similarites but also alienating differences between the two like the cultural barriers between immigrants and Americans, the inherent conservativeness versus the so-called looser ways of Americans. To see this brought up in a well-written style and to see this book receive the Pulitzer Prize gives me a lot of hope for more representation.

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book review · Uncategorized

Book Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigihara

Title: The People in the Trees

Author: Hanya Yanagihara

Categories: Adult, Literary Fiction, Science Fiction

Synopsis: Goodreads

Rating: tealstartealstartealstartealstar (3.75)

 

 


Honestly, who wrote the synopsis on the flap of this book?? It literally spoils half the book. Half of the book. So please don’t read the flap of this book before reading. Ok? ok.

From the very first page, The People in the Trees establishes itself as a foreboding and ominous scientific parable cemented with a morally ambiguous narrator at its center,

TPITT is loosely based on Daniel Carleton who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the disease kuru, later convicted of child molestation.

echoing scifi classics like Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau. We first meet our unreliable narrator, Dr. Norton Perina, in jail. He was accused of several accounts of sexual assault and rape including statutory rape. We don’t know anything about him at this point in time except the fact that he is a renowned scientist who discovered Selene’s syndrome–a condition in which a person, upon eating a rare turtle, becomes immortal. Ronald Kubodera, Perina’s acolyte, convinces Perina to write his memoir to try and clear his name. So it’s a story within a story as we hear about Perina’s life and how he came to be where he is now.

This is Yanigihara’s debut novel and it’s a very ambitious one. Its strength lies in its portrayal of Perina. Perina is, though not a particularly original character, a deeply compelling one. Throughout the entirety of the novel, you don’t quite know what to make of him. The book follows him from his young childhood to his time at Harvard Medical School and then to the islands of U’ivu. You vacillate between disgust at him (“I rather enjoyed killing the mice”), confusion at his infatuation with Tallent, another renowned scientist, or sympathy at his loneliness and want to protect the island that he studied in or even understanding at his love for science.

He remains a mystery until the very last page sentence of this book and his mysteriousness is not really cleared up even with the footnotes from scientific journals and texts provided by Kubodera, an even more unreliable editor as he practically worships Perina. I’m not usually a fan of footnotes; I find them tedious but I think the addition of these footnotes provides a rich history of the people of island Ivu’ivu and a realistic and plausible aspect to Norton’s story so that even when you find something unbelievable the footnotes provide a level of authority that you can’t help but believe.

Island of Ivu’ivu based on Angra dos Reis in Brazil

Much of the book is spent on the island of Ivu’ivu and to the descriptions of the island and the island people where Norton and his colleagues Tallent and Esme study. It’s a little bogged down at times but it’s so believable and they feel like a real people with a culture. As Perina continues to conduct experiments, the scientific community wants to get in on this turtle so they tear down the island to get them. Yanigihara touches on the themes of colonialism and imperialism as well as the different moral standards that the Ivu’vians abide by compared to Western culture. I think these themes could have been explored more and in more surprising ways especially because it was one of the more fascinating aspects of the book but I felt those were kind of glossed over.

The prose is extremely readable though not as precise or controlled or even as fleshed out as it is in A Little Life. This book is also graphic (animal lovers beware) though it is definitely tame when compared to A Little Life. But as I’ve said before with A Little Life, I never thought the violence was contrived or added just to be there. The structure of the novel  It’s not a thriller; it’s most definitely a character study on Norton. We don’t even get to find out about his jail accusations until the last fourth of the book where things get really weird..and you’re left wondering is he a psychopath genius? Just another mad scientist? A well-intentioned psychopath? And it left me thinking about it long after I read the final pages.

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Book Recommendations · book review · Uncategorized

Mini Book Reviews: Korean culture

I was thinking about the Asian/Asian American literature I’ve read and I realized I haven’t read many (if any at all) books set in Korea or by Korean authors so I kind of scratched the surface this month with these three books. I didn’t realize as I was reading them that they actually had very similar themes to one another: about generational and cultural clashes, about themes of filial obligation and commentary on Korean society. I hope you find something you like! =) Goodreads links when you click on the picture!

Starting off with my least favorite…

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin; Translated by: Chi-Young Kim

 

 

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3/5

what
A mother suddenly goes missing at a Seoul station subway and her family, mainly her daughter, son, and husband try and find her. With their mother/wife missing, they reminisce about their own relationship with her over the years.

thoughts

PLAM, though not very daring as an overall book, is actually quite daring structurally. It alternates between 2nd and 3rd person perspective between the daughter, Chi-Hon (2nd), the brother Chong Hyul (3rd), and the father (2nd), and finally a perspective from Mom herself. It works and..doesn’t work at the same time. It works because the 2nd person perspective allows the reader to envision themselves as the daughter or the father and consequently feels like your own mother is missing. But the constant switching does not allow enough time to fully immerse myself in their relationship. It just starts to explore the daughter’s relationship with her mother before suddenly switching to the son’s perspective. And it would have been much more interesting if Shin had added a layered nuance to the relationship because they all end up looking like they have the same relationship and it was sooooo boring. The mother is a stereotypical type of Asian mom: you know the ones that are very self-sacrificing and when they are hurting, they hide it from everyone but to their kids, they have a very tough love mentality.* I’m not saying they don’t exist, but there’s always more to someone that just their stereotype. But essentially they all came to the conclusion that they should have been more grateful to their mother and they finally realize their mother was actually a person and not someone who just worked in the kitchen before she disappeared. PLEASE I COULD HAVE TOLD YOU THAT BEFORE I EVEN STARTED THE BOOK. But instead of seeing the mother as a person, they now put her on a pedestal and she’s basically an angel. And, in the end, I didn’t care whether or not they found their mom, which is sad, because if your mom disappeared I would think that you would want to convince me to care about her. It had so much potential to explore the themes it only scratched the surface of such as filial obligations, generational barriers, and Korean etiquette.

But I mean I did really like all the descriptions of the food. I mean, that’s enough to give it an extra star.

Sidenote*: I was reminded of this video when I was writing about the “stereotypical” Asian mom. It’s kind of a parody of the quirks that stereotypical asian moms tend to have. It still makes me laugh everytime I watch it.


The Vegetarian by Han Kang; Translator: Deborah Smith

what

Yeong-Hye decides to become a vegetarian (actually vegan) one day after a haunting nightmare. We follow the effect of this choice on her husband, brother-in-law, and sister

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4/5

in 3 different parts of the story.

 

thoughts

I can see why not everyone likes The Vegetarian. It’s a darkly odd and twisted book though not as weird to me as everyone claims it to be (maybe that just says something about me lol; my weird tolerance is very high). But I’m in the bandwagon that really enjoyed the reading experience. Like PLAM, it alternates perspectives between different family members that are important to Yeong-Hye. Her husband, her brother-in-law, and finally, her sister. But its writing and nuanced theme exploration far surpass PLAM’s. The writing is strangely detached and emotionless but it is so visceral in its imagery with hints of magical realism that kind of balances out the detached quality. It’s kind of funny that a book titled The Vegetarian (or more accurately, the vegan) is not really about being a vegetarian so to speak. It’s about the collapse of societal etiquette that was expected of her. What happens when a subservient wife starts rebelling against her societal role? She starts wearing obscene clothing, starts to ignore her husband and doesn’t cook for him, and even ignores her father’s advice. She is a very mysterious figure in the book but I felt like she was fully realized because every perspective had a different relationship with her and more so, I got to understand the desires and fears of the people around her because of her sudden change, how her husband didn’t marry her for love, her sister’s self-sacrifice, and how her brother-in-law wants to have sex with her (ew). What happens when their subconscious desires that have never been spoken of in polite society or fully acknowledged reveal themselves? And what will happen to Yeong-Hye when her own desires are stifled? What happens when she becomes unrecognizable, when her state of being becomes problematic but is never discussed in a society that prides itself on silently enduring problems? I love the commentary it raises and I thoroughly enjoyed this surreal journey. 

Sidenote: Props to the translator, the words and their intended meaning were translated excellently.


Shelter by Jung Yun (Korean-American author)

what

 

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4.25/5

A Korean man, Kyung Cho, and his Irish-American wife, Gillian who live with their 4-year-old son Ethan, deal with the aftermath of a tragic event that happened to Kyung’s parents.

Sidenote: I imagine Ethan looks cute af because let’s face it, halfies are so cute..

thoughts

It’s a family drama that reads like a thriller and had me so anxious throughout even though when I think back on it, nothing much actually happens. In fact, I would argue that the writing is not really anything special that jumps out at you like the writing in The Vegetarian. It’s as blunt and direct as writing can get. But its strength lies in the way Yun so skillfully weaves in layers and layers to Kyung’s character without you realizing it. He’s quite the unreliable narrator, a selfish and resentful one, and because of that his actions are unpredictable and how we think of his parents, his wife is from his perspective, so even their actions are different than we expect because we think of them as one way from Kyung’s perspective when they might not be that person at all.

Kyung has a lot to deal with in this book but the one thing that’s always on his mind and controls his actions is the abuse he suffered as a child. Watching his father beat his mother, but also enduring the abuse his mother dealt him. I love the way Yun explores abuse in Shelter. Abuse doesn’t manifest itself in dramatic and obvious ways, she seems to imply, it just seeps into who you are. And as the story continues, I saw hints of his parents in Kyung, the people he never wanted to resemble. He struggles with being a good father and husband because he fears his past has not taught him how to be either. Yun explores what abuse has on cultural Korean norms as Kyung tries to reconcile his filial obligation to his desire to distance himself from his parents but also his struggle to hide and endure his past or finally acknowledge it. Can he let his past go? But more importantly, can he let his resentment of his past go? The subtle combination of these themes with the addition of fantastic storytelling (the reason I read this book in 2 days) makes this a must read. 

Have you read any of these books? If so, what were your thoughts? Also, if you have any recommendations for books set in Korea or by Korean authors, I’d love to know!! =)

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book review

MY FIRST 5 STAR REVIEW OF 2015?!

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, in just a few sentences, I will reveal to you my very first 5 star review of 2015. That’s right, my very first. The closest contender before this book was The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski. Why is it the end of August and I haven’t had a 5 star review yet? I honestly don’t really know. I think it’s because I usually reserve my 5-star ratings for books that are mind blowing to me.

Click on the image to reveal the book.

Author: ??

Pages: 720

Genre: Adult, Literary Fiction

Rating: tealstartealstartealstartealstartealstar


First off, a little perspective: I rarely cry in books. And if I do, it’s once usually at the end of the book during the epilogue because apparently epilogues make me really sad. But with this book, I was basically crying all over the place. Probably every hundred pages or so. It is about 4 friends named Willem, Malcolm, Jude and JB. When you start off the book, it follows them as they just graduated college and moving into New York City to achieve their dreams. As you move on through the book, it focuses much more on one particular friend, Jude, whom even his friends know nothing about. I feel like the Goodreads page gives a pretty accurate summary without giving away too much but I do feel it’s best to go in blind although I do warn you, it is probably the most disturbing and sad book I’ve ever read.

Written in third person perspective, Yanigihara still manages to keep the intimacy between the characters and the reader despite the detached POV. She digs into the deepest and darkest emotions of our main characters with such delicacy and precision, putting into the words the most abstract of emotions. I can’t even fathom going through some of the things that these characters go through (some people have even said some events were too unrealistic) and yet I found myself so emotionally invested in their stories as if they were my own. It’s set in present-day New York City yet there is no mention of major historical events as you become hypnotized by these lives and by the constant need to know who Jude really is and why he is trapped by his memories. No where in this 720 page book did I find myself bored. Nowhere in this book did I want to stop reading even though I had to because some of the content was so upsetting to me. It only felt long because I felt as though I’d actually been with these characters for their 40 some years of friendship. Unlike a lot of literary fiction, Yanigihara forces you feel things that you’ve never felt before. These people have stayed with me long after I read the book; I was kept up all night reading and thinking about this book. A week later, I’ll still be thinking of these characters.

For a majority of the book, Jude remains shrouded in mystery and that brings up a lot of interesting concepts and allowed the author to write about the boundaries of friendships and relationships and what it means to live as an unconventional adult. This book feels larger than life constantly subverting your prior notions. Can you have a good friendship based on lies and secrecy? Can anything save you from the memories of your past?

In some ways, it’s also a subversion of the fairy tales and legends we’re used to reading because among other things, it fools you into thinking there’s a light at the end of the tunnel when there isn’t but when you look back at the tunnel, you realize that there were patches of light while you were walking through the tunnel. And that is kind of amazing.

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

*There are trigger warnings for this book; I wouldn’t let it deter you from experiencing this book and the trigger warnings themselves are spoilery (although they are never used gratuitously or for shock factor). If you’re interested in that, just leave me a comment below and I’ll tell you!

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book review

Book Review: White Teeth

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Author: Zadie Smith

Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis: Goodreads

Rating: ★★★★☆

This is my very first Zadie Smith novel and she did not disappoint. I mean, Zadie Smith definitely knows how to write and it’s one of the most interesting and insightful aspects of this book. The way she crafts emotion and the scope of human experience with such humor but also beauty and wit with a touch of irony is beyond amazing.

In essence, this story is a family saga about Archie and Samad and their families throughout World War II and all the way up to the 90’s. All of these characters are rich and well-developed that they feel like 3-D characters. But because they are so fleshed out, I felt like some of the characters lost a lot of their time in the spotlight especially Claire, Archie’s wife. If you’re someone who needs a definitive plot, this book might not be for you because it touches more on specific moments in these character’s lives like when Archie decides to commit suicide (not a spoiler, it’s in the summary lol). This is also a slow-burning book, I’ll admit that the first chapter was a little off putting because I wasn’t following a definitive beginning, middle, and end but once I got used to that, I wanted to keep reading. I also never realized how much humor this book would have. She just has the perfect balance of humor and seriousness.

Throughout these character’s experiences, Smith gives commentary on so many topics including faith, religion, gender, and immigration. Smith is so adept at seeing the beauty and despair of human life but she also captures the absurdity of it with such clarity and humor that you can’t help but laugh at how unpredictable life can be.